Lots and lots of new releases in the past month, so it's time to get caught up on some initial impressions of the albums I've bought recently.
First up: Jens Lekman, an artist I am completely devoted to and who I've been waiting for new music from almost since the moment he released his last album, 2012's I Know What Love Isn't. Granted, he did release 52 songs/demos/sketches in 2015 (one a week for the entire year, each one titled "Postcard #[insert number here]"), so I can't say he's given us nothing in five years, but an official album is much different than songs release for free online, no matter how many of them he gives us.
The new record is called Life Will See You Now, and the really surprising thing is that it isn't simply the best of his Postcards series tightened up and recorded with more polish. There are two songs that came from those 52 songs, but the remaining eight tracks are new material.
My initial impression is that I don't love this as much as I was hoping to. It's got a lot more disco in it than I'd like (although I'm generally comfortable when he veers off in that direction for his dancier tracks), and the stories/characters aren't as immediately memorable as his previous releases.
There are some great tracks on here——"Evening Prayer", "Our First Fight", and "Wedding in Finistere" are charmers that can stand shoulder to shoulder with his best work——but given the long gestation period and rich archive of potential source material (I thought there were about 15 tracks that could have been upgraded to offcial album status from the Postcards series), the record doesn't grab me the way his other records do.
Another band that I'm generally a champion of who released an album last month is Surfer Blood, who gave us their fourth album, Snowdonia. It's also the first record since the death of one of their founding guitarists and the departure of their original bassist.
The new lineup doesn't have much of an impact on the sound——this has always been frontman John Paul Pitts' show, so the band's style remains intact despite the loss of two core members. There are some minor new twists on it, though——there's something very early-rock/50s influenced about several of the tracks that I can't quite pinpoint beyond that. But there's a bounciness and innocence (muscially, at least) that you don't hear too much from the band's earlier releases.
The run time is okay——almost 38 minutes——but there are actually only eight tracks, and at least half of them go on longer or have more filler than they need, and there's only one song that clocks in anywhere near three minutes. The title track, "Snowdonia", would have been better at half of its nearly eight minute length, preserving only the more organized middle section.
Overall this would have beena much more worthwhile record with two or three more quality songs and a serious editing of several of the exsiting tracks. For that reason it feels rushed and incoherent, like they had a deadline to meet and they were going to release this record whether it was truly ready or not.
There are still a lot of things I like about this band, but this is easily their weakest release that probably won't appeal to anyone beyond their core fan base. I'm still rooting for these guys, and I recognize that the massive and emotional changes in their membership likely affected the construction of this album, but I hope they roar back with a more focused effort next time.
3.3.17 Los Campesinos have been, despite their wildly unmarketable name, one of my favorite bands almost from the first song I ever heard. Early in their career, they released music at a furious clip, with an EP and four full albums in their first four years of existence.
As the band matured, some ancillary members came and went, and the pressures of building a life while being a not-quite-full-time musican began to distract them from touring and writing songs together, they took two years to release their fifth album, which, while good, wasn't up to par with their best material. Fans like me feared that they had lost their spark and their momentum, and we all wondered whether that would be the last true release from the group.
But here we are, an achingly long four years later, and the band has delivered another record, Sick Scenes. Typically you would expect one of two things after such a long hiatus: eitehr the band really has nothing left to say and is just going through the motions, or four years of pent up creativity have renewed their focus. Happily, Sick Scenes falls into the latter category.
It still doesn't rank with their two best albums, We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed and Romance Is Boring, but it's the best record they've released since Romance Is Boring came out seven years ago. It's slower paced and the narrative themes are more mature, but the songwriting is stronger than it's been in a while, and they have transitioned to a less frenetic approach without becoming dull (which was an increasing concern with their previous two records).
While it's hard to name a standout track or two, it's also hard to point to a bad song——Sick Scenes is just a solid album through and through. The maudlin (but touching) "The Fall of Home" probably could have been sequenced better——it's a bit of a momentum killer as track five that probably would have been a better fit somewhere around track eight.
I really don't have many complaints with this record, and I appreciate the somewhat novel approaches on tracks like "A Slow, Slow Death" with its prominent staccato horn lines and "Here's to the Fourth Time" and it's sing-songy keyboard part. It may well be four (or six, or eight) years before we get another release from the band, but this album gives me hope that there will be one someday, and that it will be worth waiting for.
By now everyone who is even a moderate Dirty Projectors fan likely knows the backstory of their new self-titled album: frontman David Longstreth and his longtime girlfriend, Amber Coffman, who was also the band's guitarist and occasional vocalist, broke up sometime after the release of the band's last album. Her distinctive vocals and guitar work had become an integral part of the band's sound over the past few records, so no one really knew what to expect from the band in the wake of her departure.
We now have the first release from the band without Coffman, a self-titled record that is really more of a Longstreth solo project than a band effort. Lacking Coffman's vocals and guiter, he becomes his own backing vocalist, with layered and sometimes distorted creating
the vocal harmonies and textures, and focus much more on synthetic instrumentation; there are virtually no guitars on this record and a lot of modern R+B influences.
I'm not sure it was the right decision for Longstreth to call this a Dirty Projectors record instead of releasing this as a solo artist, but it's a complicated, interesting record with the same intricacies and odd tempos/time changes as Dirty Projectors. Two standout tracks are "Little Bubble", which is highly probably about his relationship and breakup with Coffman, and "Up In Hudson", which is most definitely about that and which is probably the best song he's ever recorded.
Again, I don't know if I would really call this a Dirty Projectors record, but it's absolutely a record that Dirty Projectors fans will enjoy, and it really highlights Longstreth's vocal range and flexibility in a way that sometimes got lost on Dirty Projectors songs. "Up In Hudson" alone is worth the price of the album, but even without that song, this album would be a pretty strong collection from Longstreth in the wake of the band being reduced from a collective to a person.
3.7.17 The Feelies have been one of the most remarkably consistent bands in indie rock over 35+ year career. 1988's Only Life set the standard for the Feelies sound (which, as always, is heavily and obviously influenced by the Velvet Underground), and all releases before and since can be compared to that one. And aside from some very minor stylistic approaches on a few tracks, most of them compare very well to that record.
Their last record, Here Before, came out six years ago after a twenty year gap from their previous release, Time for a Witness, and it sounded like they hadn't taken a break at all. Their latest, In Between, picks up exactly there Here Before left off, and fits extremely well into the continuum of the band's overall catalog, for better or for worse.
The better: there are always a few good to great songs on a Feelies record, which on this album include the title track (which also opens the record), "Stay the Course", and the gentle, sparkling "Time Will Tell". The worse: the pace on on all the songs is very similar, and the middling tracks can fade into a mass of mediocrity that makes it harder to appreciate the unique brilliance of the great tracks. And the closing track, a raved-up nine minute instrumental reprise of the title track, is completely unnecessary after the first four minutes.
You know what you're getting with the Feelies, and you're going to get more of the same with In Between——there's not much else to say about it. I'm generally enjoying it, but your mileage may vary with this band, so make your listening/purchasing decisions accordingly.
A couple of nights ago I went to see Allison Crutchfield (twin sister of Waxahatchee frontwoman Katie Crutchfield) play at one of my favorite venues in Atlanta, the Earl. I also did something that I rarely do these days, especially for weeknight concerts at tiny venues for lesser known acts: I went to the show with friends.
There were two bands on the bill ahead of Allison, and she spent those two sets hanging out back by the bar where we were standing (she toured with her sister as a guitarist and backing vocalist last time I saw Waxahatchee, so I recognized her).
Yet another band that we haven't heard from in a while released a new album this month, this one from Grandaddy, whose last official release was 2006's Just Like the Fambly Cat (frontman Jason Lytle has released two very Grandaddy-ish solo records in the meantime, but even the most recent of those came out five years ago).
The new record is called Last Place, and I could write virtually the same review for this record that I wrote a couple of days ago for the Feelies latest album: it's very recognizable as a Grandaddy album for fans of the band, it has a few really good songs on it, but it's not the band's best work and doesn't do anything dramatically new that would justify investing in its ownership by anyone except for the completionists.
Not to be dismissive of a band's need to actually create something new together, but it's hard to see why this record exists other than to remind people that the band itself still exists and to help get them trending as a way to justify and promote the tour that will inevitably follow. There will probably be 2-3 songs that make their way into my shuffle rotation for the next few months, but I can't see myself revisiting the album as a whole very often given my reaction to it after a few listens.
3.10.17 Hall & Oates have announced a tour with fellow 80s stars Tears for Fears this summer. I own zero Hall & Oates records, and just the one Tears for Fears record that everyone owns, but when I saw the tour announcement, I felt a compulsion to attend. Let's see how this plays out...
3.13.17 Wavves have announced a new album (it seems like I type that sentence about once every six months) called You're Welcome, and have shard two tracks from it, "Daisy" and the title track:
"Daisy" is a pretty typicaly Wavves single and is the more instantly likeable of the two, but I'm trying to think about the implications of the band naming the album after the choppy, patchwork "You're Welcome". It does grow on you, but I'm interested to see if it's the outlier for the record or if it's a template for a slight left turn in the band's sound.
I started listening to Jeff Rosenstock's brilliant Worry in January, and I got so obsessed with it that I also picked up his other two solo albums, I Look Like Shit and We Cool?, which each have their charms.
I Look Like Shit is the earlier of the two records (it was released in 2012), and while there are elements of the style and sound that I fell so hard for on Worry, this is definitely a developmental, transitional record. Despite being in bands most of his adult life, this album is his first true solo project under his own name
Some of the production choices make me think he was just as interested in distancing himself from his previous work as he was in producing a great album. The whole thing has a weird 80s lo-fi feel that I can't describe adequately here but that anyone who was listening to the earliest strains of lo=fi indie rock at the end of that decade and the beginning of the 90s will recognize. Still, the songs at their core are mostly pretty good. I just know this would be a stronger album if the same approach to production and overall sound that he achieves on Worry had been used here.
With 2015's We Cool?, not only are the songs better, Rosenstock also clearly feels more comfortable with a more traditional production approach, and he doesn't try to hard to make something that sounds different just for the sake of making it sound different if that's not the best setting for that particular song. This album grew on me quickly the same way Worry did, and although the scope and comprehensive album-ness of Worry still outshines this record, We Cool? is definitely worth picking up if you had a strong positive reeaction to Worry like I did.
3.15.17 The Shins just released a new album called Heartworms, their first since 2012's Port of Morrow (which itself was five years removed from its predecessor). Port of Morrow was a very middling record, especially coming after such a long hiatus, so I had relatively low expectations for Heartworms——it's been ten years since James Mercer was involved with a record I truly loved (I never took to his collaboration with Danger Mouse, Broken Bells).
But Heartworms is a surprisingly good record, one that both hearkens back to some of the things I loved about the band's first two records ("Dead Alive" would have fit in perfectly on their debut, and the title track has the brighter, bouncier feel of Chutes Too Narrow) while also not being afraid to tread new ground, like the goofy, synth-driven "Cherry Hearts" or the shuffling, country-influenced "Mildenhall".
This is a great comeback record for a band and songwriter who seemed in danger of losing their spark, and I won't be surprised if this ends up on my 2017 best-of list. I'd rather not have another five years pass before we get the next Shins record, but if that's how long it takes to make something great, then it will be worth
Former Sonic Youth frontman Thurston Moore shared a new single from his forthcoming solo record. The song is called "Cease Fire":
Whether he likes it or not, it's highly probable that every song/record Moore releases will be immediately compared to Sonic Youth, and that's exactly what I'm going to do here. This song is actually very Sonic Youth-y, but if I were rating it as a Sonic Youth track, it would only be a middling song.
It's a little overproduced——a bit more rawness would have helped it a lot——and it's one of those tracks that sounds so much like what you would expect a Sonic Youth track to sound like that it's almost a parody of a Sonic Youth song.
Also: it's at least two minutes too long.
I went back and forth about his prior solo album——there were tracks that I loved (a couple of which I took too mostly because they DIDN'T sound like Sonic Youth songs) and a lot that felt muddled and unsure of themselves. Curious to see if Moore makes any progress on his next outing, but this is not going to be a prepurchase for me based on this track.
3.17.17 Tennis have released a new album, Yours Conditionally, the follow up to 2014's Ritual in Repeat. You kind of know what you're getting from a Tennis album at this point——70s yacht rock crossed with 60s girl group tropes——and while I like that hybrid pretty well, I'm not sure how many albums' worth of this material I need in my collection.
My reaction so far to Yours Conditionally is pretty much the same as it was to their last album: there are three or four songs on here that are good enough to be considered side by side with their best work, and there's a lot of middling material that follows the Tennis blueprint for how to construct a song, but which doesn't really justify inclusion on a new album aside from the fact that an album requires more than an EPs worth of material.
I really hate to say anything about this band——I'm glad they're out there in the world, and the songs of theirs that I respond to I have a deep connection to. But if I were trying to convince someone who doesn't know them to give this a listen, I definitely woulnd't recommend this album over some of their earlier releases, and as a longtime fan, I'm not sure that this record adds anything substantial to the works I already possess.
My wife and I went to see Regina Spektor last week at the Tabernacle, the first time either of us had seen her live. Here's the setlist:
On the Radio
Older and Taller
The Trapper and the Furrier
Ballad of a Politician
Chelsea Hotel #2 (Leonard Cohen cover)
Sellers of Flowers
You've Got Time
Don't Leave Me (Ne Me Quitte Pas)
I'm only familiar with her last two albums, and while that made up a pretty good percentage of the setlist, I could tell from the other very enthusiastic fans that she was pulling out some of their favorites from her earlier work as well. The crowd trended our age or older, although there was an adorable 10 year old girl in the row in front of us who clearly knew all the songs and was psyched out of her mind to be at the concert.
It was a very relaxed, cozy show. There were very few other players on stage, and they were in the background both physically and in the lighting scheme. Regina did a great job of making a decent size theater feel very intimate, like you were seeing her at a piano bar that only held 50 people instead of a venue that holds a couple thousand. Her flair for the dramatic translated very well to a live setting, and the strong storytelling elements in her songwriting also came through in her conversations with the audience in between the songs.
This would have a been a great first concert to take my son to, but that will have to wait until her next tour. This time all he got from it was a cool retro t-shirt with the space shuttle taking off on an exhaust plume of rainbows. He absolutely loved it, and hopefully it will still fit him next time she comes to town.
A couple of weeks ago, the Magnetic Fields released 50 Song Memoir, which is exactly what the title says it is: a collection of 50 songs from frontman Stephin Merritt, one for each of the first 50 years of his life (he started the project the year he turned 50, but he's 52 now).
This is not necessarily the most ambitious project he's undertaken in his songwriting career (that would be 69 Love Songs, a three CD release with 23 songs on each disc), but it's still a ton of material to take in. I've only listened to it a few times so far (which is a considerable effort——the total runtime of the collection is about two and a half hours), so I'm still absorbing it, but there are some obvious great songs on here, a bunch of good ones, and a decent amount that it might take me a while to figure out.
If I had to rate it overall, it would probably be about 3 out of 5 stars, or maybe a touch lower, because the average material starts to overwhelm the great and good material. There's no doubt in my mind that if you culled the best 10 songs, you'd have one of the best album's of Merritt's career, but it remains to be seen whether experiencing these songs in the way that Merritt wants to present them is really worthwhile.
I have some hope that more of the middling material will grow on me over time, though——I thought about half the stuff on 69 Love Songs was so-so or worse in my early exposure to them, but now there's very little in that collection of songs that I don't love.
Jay Som's album Everybody Works has been getting near-universal acclaim, so I decided to pick it up after listening to a few clips. But so far, it's not really making a strong positive impression on me. I love "1 Billion Dogs", which has a heavy 90s indie rock sound that reminds me a little of Yo La Tengo's "Sugarcube", but the rest of it is airier and slower paced than I was expecting.
This might be one of those mood records that has to catch me at just the right time for me to appreciate it, so I'll give it a few more chances. But sometimes the right mood never strikes, and records like this end up buried deep in my collection.
3.23.17 Spoon recently released their first album in three years, this one called Hot Thoughts. It's got the typical Spoon minimalism and spare approach to arrangement——it's as sinewy and full of muscle as you would expect. But there is something a little different about this one——it's consistently darker and more intense, to the point where the overall tone of the album could be described as creepy.
The songs are also a little bit longer than average for Spoon, so the record does seem to drag a little bit compared to some of their earlier releases. The only real miss is the closing track, "Us", which at five minutes isn't the longest song on the album, but it sure feels like it. It's an instrumental with lots of discordant saxophone and the occasional fills of jazzy, non-rhythmic drums. It's so far outside of what I'm looking for from a Spoon song that I can easily say it's the worst song of their career.
Lop that track off, however (I removed it from my playlist after listening to it just once, and I don't think I'll ever regret not hearing it again), and you have a pretty solid, if a bit weird, Spoon album.
3.24.17 Frank Ocean has a new track called "Chanel" that I'm dying to hear. But you can only stream it on Apple Music or Tidal, which require a subscription in order to hear the whole thing——otherwise you just get the same sample you could hear in iTunes.
I know I'm going to buy eventually anyway, but in this day and age, it's pretty irritating not to be able to listen for free on Spotify or see the song on YouTube. There's also no indication that this is a leading single for a new full-length release, and given how long it took him to put out Blonde, I'm not holding my breath that this is anything more than a one-off.
3.27.17 Girlpool have announced their sophomore album, Powerplant, and have shared the first single titled "123":
They're definitely going for a fuller sound than their first record (at least on this track)——I mean, there's drums and everything!——but it will be interesting to see if some of the charm of two girls with two electric guitars and intertwining vocals that sounded way better together than either one would have alone is lost with a more traditional band setup.
Billy Bragg and Iron and Wine are two other artists I like who started off with a very spare approach to instrumentation and then later went with a more typically full band approach, which didn't work at all for Bragg and worked about 50% of the time for Sam Beam (although to be fair, when it worked for him, it REALLY worked). I hope it works for Girlpool, but I'm already wondering how this track might have sounded if they had used the same approach as they did on their debut.
3.28.17 Jesus and Mary Chain just released Damage and Joy, their first album of new material in nearly 20 years. I know that any reasonable person would have no reason to be optimistic about this, especially someone who didn't really care for their last two releases (especially Stoned and Dethroned), but you know...hope springs eternal.
My inner skeptic wins this time though——this is a slower paced album that, while not quite as slickly produced as Munki, is nevertheless lacking the special charms of their career-defining records, Darklands and Automatic. On a good day I might be charitable and put this on the same level as Honey's Dead, but really, it pretty much picks up where they left off two decades ago——and not in a good way.
Earlier this week I attended a very unusual pair of shows at the Variety: a two night stand from the Magnetic Fields where the entirety of the new 50 Song Memoir record (or five records, as the case may be) was played in order across two evenings.
It was a very theatrical performance, with a set made to look like a room in a house separating frontman Stephin Merritt from the rest of the musicians (he has hearing problems and can't tolerate loud noises). The show started EXACTLY at 8:00, just like the ticket said, which left a lot of people scrambling for their seats for the first couple of songs. There was also an intermission halfway through. Merritt told the crowd he would be back in 17 minutes, and that's precisely how long he was offstage. It was pretty strange but also strangely refreshing.
This is a very biographical album——Merritt wrote one song about each year of the first 50 years of his life (he's 52 now), and he would often introduce a song with a little background story that helped clarify the narrative of that song and tie it together into a more comprehensive narrative of his life (I actually wish he had included these interstitials on the album itself).
I went by myself, and I luckily ended up with an empty seat next to me so I didn't feel so cramped in the middle of the row. The people on either side of me were couples, and I chatted with them a bit before the shows and during the intermissions. I got the feeling that each couple had one person who was a huge Magnetic Fields fan and one who was appreciative but who didn't necessarily need to see the band play 50 songs across two nights.
Night two of the Magnetic Fields50 Song Memoir shows didn't start right at 8:00 like the first night——I think it started around 8:04——nor was the duration of the intermission announced, but it seems like it was around 17 minutes again.
I found a friend of mine from college in the bar before the show. He was with a friend, so we hung out and caught up until the show started and then chatted for a bit after the show as well. He only lives a couple of miles from me, and we'll bump into each other in Decatur every now and then, but we don't get together near often enough. Watching a show like this makes you reflect on the significant events of your own life, and so it was cool to spend some time at the show with someone who was a pretty big part of my life during some of the most important years of my development.
The show itself was very similar to the previous night——the second batch of 25 songs prefaced by stories that gave them more context and also helped knit them together. I had a couple of drinks the second night after abstaining the first night, and that definitely relaxed me a bit and helped me sink deeper into the experience.
This album is still growing on me——my initial impression was that the ratio of wheat to chaff might have been too tilted to the latter——but after seeing the songs performed live and hearing the additional biographical details already makes many of them feel richer and more worthwhile (for example, I was pretty indifferent to the third song in the collection, "A Cat Called Dionysis", but after seeing it performed it almost makes me cry every time I hear it and it has become one of my favorite tracks). The sheer audacit of this project means it's probably going to end up in my top 10 for 2017, but I can already tell that seeing these shows is going to make me like this record even more than I do already.